A Century of Knowledge Management

Written by on August 6, 2013 in Web & Content Strategy - Leave a Comment

What can libraries teach us about knowledge management?Knowledge management specialists owe an enormous debt to Melvil Dewey. Although the term “knowledge management”  has only been in common usage since the early 1990s, well over a century after he created his Dewey Decimal System in 1876, Dewey could well be said to be the grandfather of the discipline, inspiring knowledge management companies generations later.

Dewey’s genius was his recognition that an enormous reservoir of knowledge is useless without a system in place to selectively retrieve that knowledge. Before Dewey’s brilliant innovation, librarians faced the daunting task of organizing thousands of books without any clearly defined hierarchical structure, and knowledge-seekers endured the frustration of knowing that the answers they sought were available somewhere in the vast collection of disorganized tomes those librarians oversaw, with no clear guide as to exactly where.

Knowledge management comes of age

Many companies today find themselves in a similar predicament as those 19th-century, pre-Dewey librarians. They are tasked with facilitating the retrieval of information from a vast and often poorly organized pool, but lack an effective process to do so efficiently and systematically.

While Dewey’s innovation provided a system for knowledge management throughout most of the 20th century, the explosion of information technology at the end of that century raised the bar to levels unforeseen just a few decades earlier. It was only in the 1990s that the term knowledge management began to be used to describe this altogether new discipline, building on the library science established in the previous century by Melvil Dewey, but incorporating technology and communication media that had in only a few years become ubiquitous.

Knowledge management pioneers

Following in the footsteps of Melvil Dewey, visionary Peter Drucker foresaw that information was the commodity of the future. He coined the term knowledge worker in 1959 and has been in the vanguard of the information revolution. In a 1988 Harvard Business Review article, he observed that the typical business of the future:

. . . will be knowledge-based, an organisation composed largely of specialists who direct and discipline their own performance through feedback from colleagues, customers and headquarters. For this reason it will be what I call an information-based organisation. In such an organisation, the management of knowledge and information becomes a key to gaining competitive advantage.

Other pioneers in this emerging field include Knowledge Research Institute’s Karl Wiig, often credited with coining the term “knowledge management” in a paper discussing his work on artificial intelligence in 1986, Thomas Davenport, one of the first to more explicitly define the new term in a 1994 article in the Harvard Business Review, (“Knowledge management is the process of capturing, distributing, and effectively using knowledge.”), and Jason Frand and Carol Hixon of the UCLA Anderson School of Management, who wrote a highly influential paper in 1999, describe the sea-change in the very nature of managing knowledge that the computer and the Internet will bring to the 21st century.   

Ever more knowledge to manage

Melvil Dewey founded the first school of library science in 1887 at Columbia University. In recent years an average of almost 5,000 Masters Degrees in library science are awarded in the US every year. As information technology continues to expand, it is crucial for companies to stay on top of the exponentially growing field of knowledge management, employing competent knowledge management professionals and knowledge management specialists, such as those employed by Style Matters.

The Information Age is here to stay. Knowledge management strategies are essential to survival and prosperity in this new and exciting silicon era. Melvil Dewey would be proud.

Andrew Breslin is the author of two novels, Mother’s Milk, published in 2005 by ENC Press, and Practical Applications of Game Theory, currently being published in serial form at Imaginaire, the Journal of Mathematical Fiction. He blogs and reviews books at Goodreads. Some of his short fiction can be found on his website. When he isn’t writing he enjoys playing the banjo, chess, idolizing his cat, and thinking about math.    

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